Rising Mortgage Rates

graphic by Chris Butterworth

NBC News quoted me in Mortgage Rates Just Hit 5 Percent: What Does That Mean for Homebuyers and Owners? It opens,

Mortgage rates crossed the 5 percent line on Wednesday for the first time since 2011, marking a new era for a generation of Americans raised on super-low borrowing rates and highlighting the downside of a burgeoning national economy.

Strengthening economic growth, near-record low unemployment, inflation rates and policy moves by the Federal Reserve have all contributed to move the needle beyond the psychological 5 percent barrier.”It has only been in this decade that they have fallen below 5 percent, rates not seen since the 1960s,” said David Reiss, an expert in real estate law and professor at the Brooklyn Law School.

From 1971 through early October 2008, the average rate for a 30-year mortgage was 8.1 percent. The day before Halloween 1981, the number spiked at 18.44 percent, according to data from Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage rebundler.

Psychology aside, there’s a real money impact as well. Every increase of 10 basis points, or 0.1 percentage point, means another $6 per month per $100,000 of mortgage, said Danielle Hale, chief economist for Realtor.com.

Over the last year, the mortgage on a typically priced home of $295,000 has increased by $115 to $120 a month.

Growing monthly payments are just one of the factors contributing to tougher times for many buyers. House prices also have been on the increase, and potential homeowners must contend with the loss of the so-called SALT deductions in last year’s tax cut legislation, which complicate things in high-tax states.

De Facto Housing Finance Reform

photo by The Tire Zoo

David Finkelstein, Andreas Strzodka and James Vickery of the NY Fed have posted Credit Risk Transfer and De Facto GSE Reform. It opens,

Nearly a decade into the conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, no legislation has yet been passed to reform the housing finance system and resolve the long-term future of these two government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs). The GSEs have, however, implemented significant changes to their operations and practices over this period, even in the absence of legislation. The goal of this paper is to summarize and evaluate one of the most important of these initiatives – the use of credit risk transfer (CRT) instruments to shift mortgage credit risk from the GSEs to the private sector.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have significant mortgage credit risk exposure, largely because they provide a credit guarantee to investors on the agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) they issue. Since the CRT programs began in 2013, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have transferred to the private sector a portion of the credit risk on approximately $1.8 trillion in single-family mortgages (as of December 2017; source: Fannie Mae, 2017, Freddie Mac, 2017). The GSEs have experimented with a range of different risk transfer instruments, including reinsurance, senior-subordinate securitizations, and transactions involving explicit lender risk sharing. The bulk of CRT, however, has occurred via the issuance of structured debt securities whose principal payments are tied to the credit performance of a reference pool of securitized mortgages. A period of elevated mortgage defaults and losses will  trigger automatic principal write-downs on these CRT bonds, partially offsetting credit losses experienced by the GSEs.

Our thesis is that the CRT initiative has improved the stability of the  housing finance system and advanced a number of important objectives of GSE reform. In particular the CRT programs have meaningfully reduced the exposure of the Federal government to mortgage credit risk without disrupting the liquidity or stability of secondary mortgage markets. In the process, the CRT programs have created a new financial market for pricing and trading mortgage credit risk, which has grown in size and liquidity over time. Given diminished private-label securitization activity in recent years, these CRT securities are one of the primary ways for private-sector capital market investors to gain exposure to residential mortgage credit risk.

An important reason for this success is that the credit risk transfer programs do not disrupt the operation of the agency MBS market or affect the risks facing agency MBS investors. Because agency MBS carry a GSE credit guarantee, agency MBS investors assume that they are exposed to interest rate risk and prepayment risk, but not credit risk. This reduces the set of parameters on which pass-through MBS pools differ from one another, improving the standardization of the securities underlying the liquid to-be-announced (TBA) market where agency MBS mainly trade. Even though the GSEs now use CRT structures to transfer credit risk to a variety of private sector investors, these arrangements do not affect agency MBS investors, since the agency MBS credit guarantee is still being provided only by the GSE. In other words, the GSE stands in between the agency MBS investors and private-sector CRT investors, acting in a role akin to a central counterparty.

Ensuring that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s credit risk sharing efforts occur independently of the agency MBS market is important for both market functioning and financial stability. The agency MBS market, which remains one of the most liquid fixed income markets in the world, proved to be quite resilient during the 2007-2009 financial crisis, helping to support the supply of mortgage credit during that period. The agency market financed $2.89 trillion of mortgage originations during 2008 and 2009, experiencing little drop in secondary market trading volume during that period. In contrast, the non-agency MBS market, where MBS investors are exposed directly to credit risk, proved to be much less stable; Issuance in this market essentially froze in the second half of 2007, and has remained at low levels since that time.4 (1-2, citations and footnotes omitted)

One open question, of course, is whether the risk transfer has been properly priced. We won’t be able to fully answer that question until the next crisis tests these CRT securities. But in the meantime, we can contemplate the authors’ conclusion:

the CRT program represents a valuable step forward towards GSE
reform, as well as a basis for future reform. Many proposals have been put forward for long-term reform of mortgage market since the GSE conservatorships began in 2008. Although the details of these proposals vary, they generally share in common the goals of

(1) ensuring that mortgage credit risk is borne by the private sector (probably with some form of government backstop and/or tail insurance to insure catastrophic risk and stabilize the market during periods of stress), while

(2) maintaining the current securitization infrastructure as well as the standardization and liquidity of agency MBS markets.

The credit risk transfer program, now into its fifth year, represents an effective mechanism for achieving these twin goals. (21, footnote omitted)

Treasury’s Take on Housing Finance Reform

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Being Sworn In

The Department of the Treasury released its Strategic Plan for 2018-2022. One of its 17 Strategic Objectives is to promote housing finance reform:

Support housing finance reform to resolve Government-Sponsored Enterprise (GSE) conservatorships and prevent taxpayer bailouts of public and private mortgage finance entities, while promoting consumer choice within the mortgage market.

Desired Outcomes

Increased share of mortgage credit supported by private capital; Resolution of GSE conservatorships; Appropriate level of sustainable homeownership.

Why Does This Matter?

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been in federal conservatorship for nine years. Taxpayers continue to stand behind their obligations through capital support agreements while there is no clear path for the resolution of their conservatorship. The GSEs, combined with federal housing programs such as those at the Federal Housing Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs, support more than 70 percent of new mortgage originations. Changes should encourage the entry of greater private capital in the U.S. housing finance system. Resolution of the GSE conservatorships and right-sizing of federal housing programs is necessary to support a more sustainable U.S. housing finance system. (16)

The Plan states that Treasury’s strategies to achieve these objectives are to engage “stakeholders to develop housing finance reform recommendations.” (17) These stakeholders include Congress, the FHFA, Fed, SEC, CFPB, FDIC, HUD (including the FHA), VA, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Association of State Banking Regulators as well as “The Public.” Treasury further intends to disseminate “principles and recommendations for housing finance reform” and plan “for the resolution of current GSE conservatorships.” (Id.)

This is all to the good of course, but it is at such a high level of generality that it tells us next to nothing. In this regard, Trump’s Treasury is not all that different from Obama and George W. Bush’s. Treasury has not taken a lead on housing finance reform since the financial crisis began. While there is nothing wrong with letting Congress take the lead on this issue, it would move things forward if Treasury created an environment in which housing finance reform was clearly identified as a priority in Washington. Nothing good will come from letting Fannie and Freddie limp along in conservatorship for a decade or more.

Bringing Housing Finance Reform over the Finish Line

photo by LarryWeisenberg

Mike Milkin at Milkin Institute Global Conference

The Milkin Institute have released Bringing Housing Finance Reform over the Finish Line. It opens,

The housing finance reform debate has once again gained momentum with the goal of those involved to move forward with bipartisan legislation in 2018 that results in a safe, sound, and enduring housing finance system.

While there is no shortage of content on the topic, two different conceptual approaches to reforming the secondary mortgage market structure are motivating legislative discussions. The first is a model in which multiple guarantor firms purchase mortgages from originators and aggregators and then bundle them into mortgage-backed securities (MBS) backed by a secondary federal guarantee that pays out only after private capital arranged by each guarantor takes considerable losses (the multiple-guarantor model). This approach incorporates several elements from the 2014 Johnson-Crapo Bill and a subsequent plan developed by the Mortgage Bankers Association. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs)—would continue as guarantors, but would face new competition and would no longer enjoy a government guarantee of their corporate debt or other government privileges and protections.

The second housing finance reform plan is based on a multiple-issuer, insurance-based model originally proposed by Ed DeMarco and Michael Bright at the Milken Institute, and builds on the existing Ginnie Mae system (the DeMarco/Bright model). In this model, Ginnie Mae would provide a full faith and credit wrap on MBS issued by approved issuers and backed by loan pools that are credit-enhanced either by (i) a government program such as the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) or U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), or (ii) Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)- approved private credit enhancers that arrange for the required amounts of private capital to take on housing credit risk ahead of the government guarantee. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would be passed through receivership and reconstituted as credit enhancement entities mutually owned by their seller/servicers.

While the multiple guarantor and DeMarco/Bright models differ in many ways, they share important common features; both address key elements of housing finance reform that any effective legislation must embrace. In the remainder of this paper, we first identify these key reform elements. We then assess some common features of the two models that satisfy or advance these elements. The final section delves more deeply into the operational challenges of translating into legislative language specific reform elements that are shared by or unique to one of the two models. Getting housing finance reform right requires staying true to high-level critical reform elements while ensuring that technical legislative requirements make economic and operational sense.  (2-3, footnotes omitted)

The report does a good job of outlining areas of broad (not universal, just broad) agreement on housing finance reform, including

  • The private sector must be the primary source of mortgage credit and bear the primary burden for credit losses.
  • There must be an explicit federal backstop after private capital.
  • Credit must remain available in times of market stress.
  • Private firms benefiting from access to a government backstop must be subject to strong oversight. (4-5)

We are still far from having a legislative fix to the housing finance system, but it is helpful to have reports like this to focus us on where there is broad agreement so that legislators can tackle the areas where the differences remain.

Easy Money From Fannie Mae

The San Francisco Chronicle quoted me in Fannie Mae Making It Easier to Spend Half Your Income on Debt. It reads in part,

Fannie Mae is making it easier for some borrowers to spend up to half of their monthly pretax income on mortgage and other debt payments. But just because they can doesn’t mean they should.

“Generally, it’s a pretty poor idea,” said Holly Gillian Kindel, an adviser with Mosaic Financial Partners. “It flies in the face of common financial wisdom and best practices.”

Fannie is a government agency that can buy or insure mortgages that meet its underwriting criteria. Effective July 29, its automated underwriting software will approve loans with debt-to-income ratios as high as 50 percent without “additional compensating factors.” The current limit is 45 percent.

Fannie has been approving borrowers with ratios between 45 and 50 percent if they had compensating factors, such as a down payment of least 20 percent and at least 12 months worth of “reserves” in bank and investment accounts. Its updated software will not require those compensating factors.

Fannie made the decision after analyzing many years of payment history on loans between 45 and 50 percent. It said the change will increase the percentage of loans it approves, but it would not say by how much.

That doesn’t mean every Fannie-backed loan can go up 50 percent. Borrowers still must have the right combination of loan-to-value ratio, credit history, reserves and other factors. In a statement, Fannie said the change is “consistent with our commitment to sustainable homeownership and with the safe and sound operation of our business.”

Before the mortgage meltdown, Fannie was approving loans with even higher debt ratios. But 50 percent of pretax income is still a lot to spend on housing and other debt.

The U.S. Census Bureau says households that spend at least 30 percent of their income on housing are “cost-burdened” and those that spend 50 percent or more are “severely cost burdened.”

The Dodd-Frank Act, designed to prevent another financial crisis, authorized the creation of a “qualified mortgage.” These mortgages can’t have certain risky features, such as interest-only payments, terms longer than 30 years or debt-to-income ratios higher than 43 percent. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said a 43 percent limit would “protect consumers” and “generally safeguard affordability.”

However, loans that are eligible for purchase by Fannie Mae and other government agencies are deemed qualified mortgages, even if they allow ratios higher than 43 percent. Freddie Mac, Fannie’s smaller sibling, has been backing loans with ratios up to 50 percent without compensating factors since 2011. The Federal Housing Administration approves loans with ratios up to 57 percent, said Ed Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute Center on Housing Risk.

Since 2014, lenders that make qualified mortgages can’t be sued if they go bad, so most lenders have essentially stopped making non-qualified mortgages.

Lenders are reluctant to make jumbo loans with ratios higher than 43 percent because they would not get the legal protection afforded qualified mortgages. Jumbos are loans that are too big to be purchased by Fannie and Freddie. Their limit in most parts of the Bay Area is $636,150 for one-unit homes.

Fannie’s move comes at a time when consumer debt is soaring. Credit card debt surpassed $1 trillion in December for the first time since the recession and now stands behind auto loans ($1.1 trillion) and student loans ($1.4 trillion), according to the Federal Reserve.

That’s making it harder for people to get or refinance a mortgage. In April, Fannie announced three small steps it was taking to make it easier for people with education loans to get a mortgage.

Some consumer groups are happy to see Fannie raising its debt limit to 50 percent. “I think there are enough other standards built into the Fannie Mae underwriting system where this is not going to lead to predatory loans,” said Geoff Walsh, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.

Mike Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending, said, “There are households that can afford these loans, including moderate-income households.” When they are carefully underwritten and fully documented “they can perform at that level.” He pointed out that a lot of tenants are managing to pay at least 50 percent of income on rent.

A new study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University noted that 10 percent of homeowners and 25.5 percent of renters are spending at least 50 percent of their income on housing.

When Fannie calculates debt-to-income ratios, it starts with the monthly payment on the new loan (including principal, interest, property tax, homeowners association dues, homeowners insurance and private mortgage insurance). Then it adds the monthly payment on credit cards (minimum payment due), auto, student and other loans and alimony.

It divides this total debt by total monthly income. It will consider a wide range of income that is stable and verifiable including wages, bonuses, commissions, pensions, investments, alimony, disability, unemployment and public assistance.

Fannie figures a creditworthy borrower with $10,000 in monthly income could spend up to $5,000 on mortgage and debt payments. Not everyone agrees.

“If you have a debt ratio that high, the last thing you should be doing is buying a house. You are stretching yourself way too thin,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst with Bankrate.com.

*     *     *

“If this is data-driven as Fannie says, I guess it’s OK,” said David Reiss, who teaches real estate finance at Brooklyn Law School. “People can make decisions themselves. We have these rules for the median person. A lot of immigrant families have no problem spending 60 or 70 percent (of income) on housing. They have cousins living there, they rent out a room.”

Reiss added that homeownership rates are low and expanding them “seems reasonable.” But making credit looser “will probably drive up housing prices.”

The article condensed my comments, but they do reflect the fact that the credit box is too tight and that there is room to loosen it up a bit. The Qualified Mortgage and Ability-to-Repay rules promote the 43% debt-to-income ratio because they provide good guidance for “traditional” nuclear American families.  But there are American households where multigenerational living is the norm, as is the case with many families of recent immigrants. These households may have income streams which are not reflected in the mortgage application.

The Hispanic Homeownership Gap

 

 

 

photo by Gabriel Santana

Freddie Mac’s latest Economic & Housing Research Insight asks Will the Hispanic Homeownership Gap Persist? It opens,

This is the American story.

A wave of immigrants arrives in the U.S. Perhaps they’re escaping religious or political persecution. Perhaps a drought or famine has driven them from their homes. Perhaps they simply want to try their luck in the land of opportunity.

They face new challenges in America. Often they arrive with few resources. And everything about them sets them apart—their religions, their languages, their cultures, their foods, their appearances. They are not always welcomed. They frequently face discrimination in housing, jobs, education, and more. But over time, they plant their roots in American soil. They become part of the tapestry that is America. And they thrive.

This is the story of the Germans and Italians and many other ethnic groups that poured into the U.S. a century ago.

Today’s immigrants come, for the most part, from Latin America and Asia instead of Europe. Hispanics comprise by far the largest share of the current wave. Over the last 50 years, more than 30 million Hispanics migrated to the U.S. And these Hispanics face many of the same challenges as earlier European immigrants.

Homeownership provides a key measure of transition from a newly-arrived immigrant to an established resident. Many immigrants arrive without the financial resources needed to purchase a home. In addition, the unfamiliarity and complexity of the U.S. housing and mortgage finance systems pose obstacles to homeownership. As a result, homeownership rates start low for new immigrants but rise over time.

The homeownership rate among Hispanics in the U.S.—a population that includes new immigrants, long-standing citizens, and everything in between— stands around 45 percent, more than 20 percentage points lower than the rate among non-Hispanic whites. Much of this homeownership gap can be traced to differences in age, income, education and other factors associated with homeownership.

Will the Hispanic homeownership gap close over time, as it did for the European immigrants of a century ago? Or will a significant gap stubbornly persist, as it has for African-Americans? (1-2)

It concludes,

Census projections of future age distributions suggest that the age differences of Whites and Hispanics will be reduced by six percent (0.7 years) by 2025 and 12 percent (1.2 years) by 2035. If these projections are realized, the White/Hispanic homeownership gap is likely to narrow by 20 percent (five percentage points) by 2035. The Census projections include both current residents and future immigrants, and averaging the characteristics of these two groups of Hispanics tends to mask the relatively-rapid growth in homeownership among the current residents.

It is important to remember that about 13 percent of the White/Hispanic homeownership gap cannot be traced to population characteristics such as age and income. The explanation for this residual gap is unclear, although some of it may be due to wealth gaps and discrimination. (12)

Researchers at the Urban Institute have documented the importance of the Hispanic homeownership rate to the housing market more generally. It is worthwhile for policymakers to focus on it as well.

Framing Bipartisan Housing Finance Reform

photo by Jan Tik

The Bipartisan Policy Center has issued A Framework for Improving Access and Affordability in a Reformed Housing Finance System. The brief was written by Michael Stegman who had served as the Obama Administration’s top advisor on housing policy. It opens,

With policymakers gearing up to reform the housing finance system, it is worth revisiting one of the issues that stymied negotiators in the reform effort of 2014: how to ensure adequate access to credit in the new system. The political landscape has changed substantially since 2014. For those who are focused on financing affordable housing and promoting access to mortgage credit, the status quo—the continued conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—may no longer be as appealing as it was during those negotiations. This brief draws upon the lessons learned from that experience to outline a framework for bipartisan consensus in this transformed political environment.

The “middle-way” approach described here is not dependent upon any one structure or future role for the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), though it does assume the continuation of a government guarantee of qualified mortgage-backed securities (MBS). It is this guarantee that forms the basis of the obligation to ensure that the benefits flowing from the government backstop are as broadly available as possible, consistent with safety and soundness and taxpayer protection.

In recent months, at least three such proposals have been developed that preserve a federal backstop (see Mortgage Bankers Association, Bright and DeMarco, and Parrott et al. proposals). Should the administration and Congress pursue a strict privatization approach to reform, lacking a guarantee, it’s unlikely that any affordable housing obligations would be imposed in the reformed system. (cover page, footnotes omitted)

Stegman goes on to describe “The Affordable Housing Triad:”

Over the years, Congress has made it clear that the GSEs’ public purpose includes supporting the financing of affordable housing and promoting access to mortgage credit “throughout the nation, including central cities, rural areas, and underserved areas,” even if doing so involves earning “a reasonable economic return that may be less than the return earned on other activities.” As part of this mandate, policymakers have created a triad of affordable housing and credit access requirements:

  1. Meeting annual affordable-mortgage purchase goals set by the regulator;
  2. Paying an assessment on each dollar of new business to help capitalize two different affordable housing funds; and
  3. Developing and executing targeted duty-to-serve strategies, the purpose of which is to increase liquidity in market segments underserved by primary lenders and the GSEs, defined by both geography and housing types. (1, footnote omitted)

The paper outlines three bipartisan options that would not

compromise the obligation to provide liquidity to all corners of the market at the least possible cost, consistent with taxpayer protection and safety and soundness. Each option attempts to ensure that the system as a whole provides access and affordability at least as much as the existing system; includes an explicit and transparent fee on the outstanding balance of guaranteed MBS; and includes a duty to serve the broadest possible market. (3)

The paper is intended to spark further conversation about housing finance reform while advocating for the needs of low- and moderate-income households. I hope it succeeds in pushing Congress to focus on the details of what could be a bipartisan exit strategy from the endless GSE conservatorships.